The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Say Whatever You Want but I Can Tell You That We Have the Greatest Football Fans in the World

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To emerge out of this quagmire of chaos, and still find the heart to believe that tomorrow will be a better day, the Warriors will be a better team, Zifa will be a better functional body that doesn't depend on just Cuthbert Dube for it to be operational and remain optimistic that the Young Warriors will be given a reprieve and not banned for three years by Caf for failing to fulfill their assignments, is the greatest demonstration of the ultimate football fan.THE iconic image of the 2013 Nations Cup finals, for me, came and went at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Monday night.

It had nothing to do with Black Stars' showman, Asamoah Gyan, turning on a dominant man-of-the-match performance, his flashy hairstyle, with the number three stitched on both sides of his head, or his crazy celebrations telling the Ghanaian media to shut-up.

We have come to expect Gyan to score for the Black Stars, haven't we, and we always know he will plunge into all sorts of dance routines and, for a man who is a budding rap star, known as Baby Jet, dancing and showmanship comes quite naturally.

Gyan hadn't scored, in Ghana's first two group matches in South Africa, and the critics were on his back but he silenced them on Monday night, firing his team ahead with a beauty, and having a hand in the other two goals.

Inevitably, there was that reaction, to his media critics, and as he wheeled off to celebrate after breaking his duck, he could be seen telling them, with the clearest sign language you will ever come across from a football star, to simply shut their large mouths.

Monday was January 28th and maybe, as fate would have planned it, the occasion was tailor-made for Gyan to score a goal at the Nations Cup.

Rewind to the 2010 Nations Cup finals in Angola and on January 28, Ghana took on Nigeria at the November 11 Stadium in Luanda in the semi-finals and Gyan scored the priceless goal that swept the Black Stars into the final against Egypt.

Last year, in Gabon, and again on January 28, Ghana faced Mali at the Stade de Franceville in a group game and Gyan fired the Black Stars into the lead in the 64th minute in a game they eventually ran out comfortable 2-0 winners.

This week in Port Elizabeth, Gyan scored for the third straight time, in the Nations Cup finals, on January 28, when he opened the scoring against Niger.

And if his critics in the Ghanaian media had cared to just take a look at history, the last two Nations Cup finals and what usually happens on January 28 when Gyan plays in a Nations Cup tie, they would have seen the odds were in favour of the striker getting a goal. But all that historical material was not what stood out, as an iconic image, for me on that Monday night as I followed the events at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

Instead, it was a man waving the Zimbabwean flag, buried in the heart of a mass of Ghanaian fans, who created my lasting image of this Nations Cup finals.

There he was, alone among this army of delirious Black Stars, singing, dancing, and waving his giant flag, which somehow appeared to overshadow everything the Ghanaians were waving that night, dwarfing everything that was around and attracting the interests of the television camera crew.

His Warriors had failed, for the umpteenth time, to make it and despite the heartbreak of the latest doomed campaign, lost on away goals in probably the easiest qualifying formula we will ever get, this man ensured he would honour his commitment for his dance with the Nations Cup finals.

It must have been a commitment he made that day when we led 3-0 at Rufaro in the first half of our final qualifier against an out-of-sorts Angola, and not even the dramatic twist of events in Luanda, in that 10-minutes of madness that destroyed our dreams, could make him cancel his date with the 2013 Nations Cup finals.

And, while he was supporting Ghana, he was very clear as to who he was, after all his flag said it all - a Zimbabwean to the core, extremely proud to be identified as that man from the country sandwiched by the Limpopo and Zambezi and very cocky to bring to the stadium the biggest flag of them all.

He never tried to adopt the Ghanaian nationality, even though the gold, green, red and black colours of both flags shared a striking similarity, and even on this night, when the Black Stars were thriving and his Warriors were hiding, he was proudly Zimbabwean.

He didn't choose an isolated place to pour out his love for football, and there were many empty spaces in that stadium that he could have occupied and, from a distance, with his Zimbabwean flag waving to the rhythm of the blowing breeze, could have seen it all.

Clearly, he didn't understand the songs the Ghanaians were singing but that didn't matter on the night because he was there for football, to pour out his emotions, to explore his love affair with this magical game, to make friends, to indulge in his passion and to enjoy the sights and sounds of a buzzing stadium.

His Warriors had failed to deliver him that prized package, once again they had come so close and yet so far, once again they had flattered and only to deceive, once again they had let the prized ticket slip away from their grasp and, once again, they had left him stranded.

Like the Unknown Soldier, he wasn't the only one. That night, in Port Elizabeth, he was the prominent one, thanks to his giant flag whose beautiful colours brought a magical picture to the television screen, especially when watched in High Definition, but he was just a sole representative of millions of broken hearts.

The iconic symbol of a tortured people, very loyal to their national game, very loyal to their national team, very loyal to their national flag, burdened over the years by souls battered by the emotions of failure, which somehow has fashioned itself to always come in heartbreaking fashion.

But, somehow, it hasn't destroyed their love affair with this game, it hasn't diluted their optimism that tomorrow will be a better day, it hasn't blown away their belief that their beloved Warriors will soar, it hasn't shattered their confidence that, as they say in Polokwane, Lidoda Duva, our day shall come.

The Best Football Fans In The World

As the iconic image of that Zimbabwean football fan, waving his giant flag at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, replayed itself in my mind this week, I wondered if there is any better breed of football fans, in the world, than those found in this country.

I'm not sure and I know someone will say the English are passionately crazy about their football and that they still consider their national team as something special, a good 47 years after they last won the World Cup, is testimony of that strong love affair.

Some will say the Brazilians, too, are mad about their football and that they still believe they are the greatest football nation in the world, a good decade after they last conquered it in South Korea and Japan, is also testimony of the powerful love affair they have with their national team.

But maybe it's easy to do that when you have been champions of the world five times, when you come from a country that considers Pele as one of their own, when your nation has been blessed by some outrageous talents like Socrates, Zico, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Tostao, Jarzinho, and the list could go on and on.

Others will say the Argentinians are absolutely crazy about their national team, who haven't been world champions now for a good 27 years, but then, again, maybe it's easy to do that when you come from Diego Maradona's country, when Lionel Messi is your countryman and Mario Kempes, the hero of their '78 World Cup success story, is one of your own.

The Nigerians love their Super Eagles but then, again, maybe it's easy to do that when you are 150 plus million people, your memory bank carries the golden moments of the time when they touched the heavens in Atlanta in '96 and beat Argentina and Brazil to win Olympic gold, and one of your all-time heroes, from your motherland, is a certain genius called Jay-Jay Okocha.

But it's a different story when your national team has only qualified for the Nations Cup twice, in a cool 33 years, at an average of once every 16 years, when your country has only produced just three players good enough to play in the English Premiership, when the history of your national team contains countless pages of failure and fewer pages of isolated success.

It's a different case when for 23 years your national team tried, and failed, to qualify for the Nations Cup finals, when now and again the moment of failure was usually a catastrophic collapse on the final hurdle, with all the heartbreaks it induced, when fate always appeared to conspire against your boys and something would always happen that would destroy their campaign.

It's a different scenario when none of your teams have ever won the Champions League, or any of the continental inter-club titles, when the best that one of them has done is to go into the final and then lose it, when it took a good 18 years after independence for that to happen, and that 15 years later, we haven't come any closer to doing that again.

It's a different tale when your national team attracts the kind of negativity that stalks the Warriors, when it's all about Asiagate, match-fixing, Ballon d'Orgate, the Under-20 national team failing to travel to international assignments, after they had played the first leg at home, and the Under-20s failing to honour their international commitments, after playing the first leg at home.

It's a different issue when it's normal for your national team players, returning from training during preparations for a crucial assignment at home, come back to find their hotel rooms locked because the bills haven't been paid and, when they finally get over that ordeal, and prepare to leave for their foreign assignment, they arrive at the airport to find their air tickets haven't been secured.

It's different when the process to choose your national team coaches shifts from one that only considers merit into one that considers who is our friend, who is the one who serves our interests best, who is the one from our hometown, who is the one who speaks our common language, who is the one who played for our old team, who is the one who will not flinch when we tell he whom to choose, in terms of players, and whom to leave out.

It's different when the atmosphere is continuously poisoned so much that a budding young coach like Norman Mapeza is sacrificed, for no apparent reason even after he was exonerated from all the charges that were laid against him, and he continues to be isolated from a game whose flagship team he captained and then coached and, had he not been disturbed by the politics, would certainly have created an oiled machine by now.

To emerge out of all that, and still continue to have belief in the game to the extent of taking your national flag to a stadium where your national team is not play, still find it romantic to be identified as a Zimbabwean fan, still find it nice to sing for Ghana, all in the name of enjoying this game, is the ultimate demonstration of the greatest football supporter ever.

To emerge out of this quagmire of chaos, and still find the heart to believe that tomorrow will be a better day, the Warriors will be a better team, Zifa will be a better functional body that doesn't depend on just Cuthbert Dube for it to be operational and remain optimistic that the Young Warriors will be given a reprieve and not banned for three years by Caf for failing to fulfil their assignments, is the greatest demonstration of the ultimate football fan.

To emerge out of all this kingdom of darkness, and somehow still believe that there is a flicker of light out there, to such an extent that one can still carry his national flag, wear his Warriors' replica jersey and pay to watch a game where his team is not playing, simply because he has this undying love for this game, is in my humble submission, the greatest love story, between football and its fans, ever told.

Make no mistake about it, we have the greatest football fans in the world, all-weather friends of the world's most beautiful game, and I will be surprised to one day see a Bafana Bafana fan, at the Nations Cup where South Africa are not taking part, let's say in Zambia, going to watch a match there between Ghana and Niger and waving his flag for good measure.

It was Sara Paddison, in her classic quote, who told us: "You'll discover that real love is millions of miles past falling in love with anyone or anything. When you make that one effort to feel compassion, instead of blame or self-blame, the heart opens again and continues opening."

In short, that tells the story of the special relationship that we have, as Zimbabwean football fans, with the world's most beautiful game. On that Monday night at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, one man represented all of us, the strength of our passion that knows no borders, the depth of our loyalty that knows no ending, the beauty of our affection that beams brightly even in borrowed company and the SuperSport cameras were there to capture it all.

Pagels Gets Down To Business

As expected, which is quite common with our football, it hasn't been a smooth ride for new Warriors' coach, Klaus Dieter Pagels, as he tries to ease into his new role, which is very different from the ceremonial one he was playing in the background as director of coaching.

He couldn't address the media this week, to talk about why this and that player has been drafted into the team or left out, because he was concerned he could be breaking the law since his work permit, to enable him to assume a role as a direct employee of Zifa, hasn't been regularised yet.

In all the other countries now, the announcement of the national football team has evolved into a hugely significant event and in South Africa, they even do a countdown, on their television channels, in the days leading to that announcement.

The norm everywhere now is for a media conference to be held, when the team is being announced, where the coach addresses the journalists and fields questions, defending his selections and omissions, and giving the public as much information as possible, regarding his choices.

Sadly, we still way behind and, given the challenges that Pagels faced this week, it would not have been possible for him to address that media conference even if it had been held.

I don't know Pagels that much and if you go through his files there is very little to give away and it's not fair to judge him as a good or bad coach, when there is very little to give an indication of what he has done in the past, to provide fair ground for such an assessment to be made, without turning it into a mockery of an exercise.

The best thing right now, which is the easiest option, is to give him the benefit of doubt and support his efforts and he has done pretty well to offload some of the old guard, just the way Norman had done when he came in, and bring in a lot of fresh faces.

His brave decision to look beyond the wall of politics and extend a hand to bring back guys like Washington Arubi, Tafadzwa Rusike and crew back into the fold, against a background where in the past these guys have been described using words like 'mercenaries, sellouts and rats', should be commended.

He has also given Knowledge Musona another chance, despite all the challenges that the striker has faced playing for his country in recent months, and his strained relationship with an association that decided to withdraw its trust from their talisman, something that has clearly affected his form, turning him into a very average player for his Bundesliga side.

What I don't understand is his decision to drop Arial Sibanda, given his youth and the fact that he had risen up the ranks to become the best goalkeeper plying his trade on the domestic Premiership, and in return draft a guy like Maxwell Nyamupangedengu into the squad.

Any Warriors' coach who ignores the talents of Ovidy Karuru, to such an extent that he is even not considered in the initial bloated group called into camp, and considering that this guy suddenly bursts into a very, very good player for his country and against a background where we have very few guys who can play his playmaking role, would be taking a huge gamble.

It also brings in all the conspiracy theories, that maybe the coach is working under orders that this and that player are not allowed into the team, and once that becomes the case, the whole process of team building gets off to a false start and we lose the plot, even before we have started the journey.

The Warriors' team that we should build is the one that should compete for the 2015 Nations Cup finals, as a starting point, because the World Cup journey looks doomed right now and our resources would be better invested in a better project that dreaming about our appearance in Brazil.

Pagels has started his journey and, like what Charles Mabika said at the turn of the year, he needs to be supported by everyone and, crucially, he also needs time to build a team that can compete again.

Too Bad The Zambians Are out

Chipolopolo became the first Nations Cup holders, in two decades, to crash out of the defence of their title at the first stage and the image of one of their fans, in tears at the Mbomela Stadium as the dream faded away, captured the mood of a shocked and heartbroken nation.

But one also feels they had become too corky and were beginning to believe it was written in the stars that they will have another dance with glory.

One Zambian, Collins Kasanda, posted an interesting comment on the internet, just before their defence of this Nations Cup.

"I have never understood these Zimbabweans. When did they cease to be our bitter rivals? They should know that Zambia is representing Zambia and not Sadc. Every team got its chance in Afcon and Zim was busy fixing matches.

The Zimbabweans always want to steal Zambian glory. They often lay claim to Kariba Dam and the majestic Vic Falls which they share with us, so now let's tell them clearly.

They should build their tea, the Warriors or Dreaming Team, whatever they call it.

I was surprised to see Zimbabweans, who for long have ridiculed our dear Chipolopolo, post such statements as 'we have done it.' What? Organise your team. Halala Zambia Halala."

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